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Middle East and North Africa / United Arab Emirates

Homegrown AgTech innovation in Abu Dhabi

A technological revolution in food production is underway, and Abu Dhabi-based Pure Harvest, an AgTech pioneer, is proudly representing the UAE on the global stage. CEO and co-founder Sky Kurtz explains how innovative, resource-conserving, climate-controlled agriculture solutions can help us address some of our most pressing food security challenges, and how Abu Dhabi could become a leading food producer.

PureHarvest is revolutionising food production. (Photo by ZAIETS/Shutterstock)

The time for innovation

 With climate change disrupting weather patterns and rendering more parts of the world hot and humid, extreme conditions are increasingly affecting food production. On top of this, demand is escalating: “It’s a commonly cited statistic that by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion people in the world, and we will need 70% more food,” says Kurtz. New solutions are needed on a global level, and Kurtz is confident that the answer lies in technology, which has the power to transform everything from resource management to traceability.

Pure Harvest specialises in controlled-environment agriculture. “We design, build and operate high-tech, hybrid growing solutions that enable us to locally grow premium fresh fruits and vegetables year-round,” says Kurtz. Highly efficient greenhouses maintain a Mediterranean climate in any environment and support a natural ecosystem to yield cleaner-than-organic produce. Today, the company supplies leafy greens, strawberries and 16 varieties of tomato to major retailers, hotels and restaurants in Abu Dhabi.

Sustainability is fundamental to Pure Harvest’s operations, and managing energy is crucial. The company is constantly pursuing innovative, sustainable energy options, including harnessing waste heat, repurposing flue gas emissions through CO2 dosing and making the most of natural resources by using solar energy. On top of this, producing food locally and therefore displacing imports reduces food miles (meaning fewer planes in the sky), making Pure Harvest’s operations carbon negative.

All this is being done at scale in Abu Dhabi, and the company sees the emirate as the hub from which it can achieve still bigger ambitions. “Our target is to supply climate-controlled growing solutions to countries within 3,000 miles of the equator which are currently import-dependent,” says Kurtz. “The vision encompasses delivering countries a solution for food security, water conservation, economic diversification and sustainability, all by localising food production using technology.”

The potential of tech

 “We developed a bespoke proprietary climate management system. There are sensors and control systems on every major element within our growing systems that enable us to control and influence the climate inside,” says Kurtz.

Alongside this, Pure Harvest is constantly innovating, from water pumps to materials to operations, from climate tech to construction tech, to better respond to extreme environments. In the desert, for example, the combination of humidity and wind risks causing sand to stick to the glass of the greenhouses, blocking the light to the plants inside. “We’re developing an AI-powered robotic solution to clean the glass to solve that problem,” says Kurtz. Innovation is ongoing in all areas of the business. “We have a whole range of projects around dehumidification and light efficiency, reducing energy consumption and capital consumption.”

Homegrown in Abu Dhabi

 Abu Dhabi has proven to be the perfect place for agricultural innovation. A subtropical environment with a fast-growing population which currently relies on imports for 90% of its food, the emirate and the broader region represent a huge market opportunity and the possibility to develop the solution where it is needed.

On top of this, Abu Dhabi has outstanding institutional support for innovation. “We’re based out of the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), a free zone with wonderful customer service and tax advantages, including the 0% corporate tax rate. It provides all of the professional institutions to support the building and administration of a company,” explains Kurtz. “And ADGM applies the English common law, which makes it easy to secure capital and trade in international markets.”

In 2020, Pure Harvest announced a partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), which saw the company receive incentives to fuel further innovation and development including its R&D platform. It has also received investment from ADQ (Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company) and enjoys the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem fostered by Abu Dhabi’s tech startup ecosystem and accelerator, Hub71.

All this can be traced back to the country’s visionary leadership and its demonstrable commitment to diversifying its economy and cultivating essential innovation. Her Excellency H.E Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food and Water Security, explains that the UAE has always made food security a national priority and that it is embracing innovation at its heart. With a mandate to ensure that the UAE’s population has access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food and water, Her Excellency explains: “The Food and Water Security Office is actively promoting the adoption of AgTech throughout the UAE food value chain as part of its National Food Security Strategy 2051, which aims for the UAE to enhance its level of self sufficiency and become a world-leading hub for innovation-driven food security within the next 30 years”.

“One of the things I love about building this business here is you feel like the government’s fighting for you,” says Kurtz. He cites the example of how the federal Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation got directly involved with helping the company recruit during Covid-19. “We couldn’t be more grateful for the fact that the country is backing us, treating us as a champion and helping to build our business.”

Along with this thriving environment for business and innovation, Abu Dhabi hosts all the natural resources required for world-class agriculture. Kurtz points out that Abu Dhabi, as the largest emirate with the greatest access to freshwater, has always been the farming capital of the UAE. Besides this, Abu Dhabi offers an abundance of the two other natural resources most important for cultivating produce: sunlight and land.

All this has allowed Pure Harvest to develop a homegrown solution to the challenges facing this part of the world. “Rather than importing successful models from elsewhere, we’re showing that homegrown innovation is possible: the ecosystem exists here from a technology standpoint, for doing business and attracting capital and talent,” says Kurtz. By exporting its technology, Pure Harvest aims to make Abu Dhabi a global champion of agricultural innovation. “What’s really exciting is that we have international investment from all over the world,” says Kurtz. “We have proved that the Middle East can be one of the best places in the world to produce food, and that is something we’re really proud of.”

Global growth

These developments come at a time when the AgTech sector is booming globally. Pure Harvest now has its sights on continued innovation and bringing its solution to more markets from Abu Dhabi. Its first project in Saudi Arabia will be productive by Q1 next year, and a $50 million development in Kuwait will soon be underway.

With technology constantly evolving, innovation in this sector will embrace all the tools available. “We are deploying machine learning that is allowing us to further automate our climate management systems,” Kurtz adds. As in many other industries, data is becoming more and more essential, with the power to shape policy and inform consumers.

“From the consumer’s perspective, we’re going to offer greater variety and create new demand,” Kurtz adds. Produce, however innovative, is also there to be enjoyed, and part of Pure Harvest’s vision is to liberate the consumer by providing more options on the shelves. Anything that can grow in a Mediterranean climate can grow in Pure Harvest’s greenhouses, from capsicums to microgreens.

All this is going to take investment, and this market presents substantial opportunities for investors who are increasingly interested in SDG (sustainable development goal)-driven investment. “The year-on-year growth in venture capital investment is massive,” says Kurtz. “Entrepreneurs are going to increasingly see that Abu Dhabi is a place where you can make a very positive social impact. We’re sustainable, we’re profitable, and we’re being transformative. Investors are seeing the really exciting opportunities that Abu Dhabi presents.”